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Saving Seeds

Note:  A tablespoon of powdered milk in a linen garni bag or facial tissue added to each storage container will absorb humidity.

1.  Source:    Colorado State University Cooperative Extension, J.E. Ells, vegetable crop specialist and associate professor (retired), horticulture and landscape architecture. 2/96. Reviewed 10/99.   See also Vegetable Heirlooms and an online BBS Discussion group on saving heirlooms.

Quick Facts...

The art of saving seed has been practiced by gardeners long before there were commercial seed producers. In fact, most of the vegetables and flowers we have today owe their existence to the fact that these early gardeners, with an eye for quality, saved the seed of their best plants, sowed them the next year, and in this way improved the species.

In recent years, the responsibility for maintaining and improving vegetable seed has been assumed by seed companies; however, it is still possible for home gardeners to save their own seed. To do so successfully, they must be familiar with the basics.

Plants in the garden come from either seed or transplants. True seed possesses an embryo in a dormant state. Under the right conditions, it breaks dormancy and produces a plant based on its genetic makeup. Transplants, on the other hand, are living plants or plant parts that begin to grow under favorable conditions without benefit of an embryo. In this group are bulbs, tubers, corms, cuttings ("slips") and whole living plants.

It is still common practice for home gardeners to dig dahlia and gladiolus before the ground freezes. However, it is not so common for gardeners to save the seed of flowers and vegetables. This is perhaps because seeds are relatively inexpensive and seed producers have a reputation for selling seed that germinates well and is true to the variety named on the package.

Before saving seed, consider the method of pollination, the time of seed bearing, whether the plant is a hybrid, and the manner of seed collection.

Pollination Methods

There are three pollination methods of concern to the home gardener: air-borne, insect and self. If the seed produced is to have the same genetic composition of its parents, it must be pollinated with pollen from the same variety. In the case of air-borne pollinated crops, there must be no other varieties within a mile shedding pollen at the same time. If there is, some of the harvested seed will result from a cross between these two varieties. The closer the varieties are located, the higher the percentage of crossing.

If a crop is insect pollinated, there should be 1/4 mile separating varieties. Otherwise, some of the seed saved may result from the crossing of the varieties located within this 1/4-mile radius.

Self-pollinated crops offer the best opportunity for a home gardener to save seed because the pollen is transferred directly to the stigma within the flower. Even though this occurs automatically, there is some pollen that escapes and can be transferred to an adjacent variety. To avoid this, separate varieties by a few rows of another crop.

These requirements are closely observed by commercial seed producers, who are much more concerned about trueness-to-variety than the average home gardener. However, if home gardeners totally ignore these guides, they will be disappointed in the results.

How Vegetables Are Pollinated

Air-borne pollen

Insect-borne pollen



Swiss chard
Brussels sprouts
Chinese cabbage
Brussels sprouts
Florence fennel
Radishes, winter
Swiss chard

Root Crops

Not all garden plants produce their seed at the end of the growing season. The most noteworthy exception are the biennials. This group, which includes most of the root crops, grows vegetatively the first season. To obtain seed, the roots are dug in the fall and stored between 32 and 45 degrees F through the winter. As soon as the weather permits, replant the roots to produce seed stalks and seed.


Hybrids result from a deliberate cross between two inbred lines. They are becoming increasingly popular among vegetables because they usually are more vigorous and uniform than open-pollinated varieties. They afford built-in protection for the seed producer, because they do not come true from seed. Seed saved from hybrids produces many different plant types and is a disappointment for any gardener who has unknowingly saved and planted hybrid seed. Only the person who controls the original parents can produce this hybrid seed. Nearly all corn varieties are hybrid. Other vegetables may be. To be sure, check the package to see if it says "F1 hybrid." F2 plants are not hybrids and lend themselves to seed savings.

Harvesting Seed

Seed producers have developed some very ingenious equipment for harvesting, extracting and cleaning seed. The home gardener, however, will have to do with available utensils. Seed is extracted from fruit after it ripens and before it rots. Leave summer squash and cucumbers on the vine until after frost, just like winter squash and pumpkin. Separate the seed from its pulp and dry at room temperature.

Leave pod crops on the vine until the pod dries. Harvest before the seed is dispersed. Similarly, harvest seed heads after they dry but before dispersal.


Once the seed is dried, gently hand rub to rid it of any chaff, then store in an envelope in a cool, dry, rodent-free place. The seed will germinate best the following year. Thereafter, its germination percentage declines in accordance with the storage conditions, seed type and original seed quality. It is, therefore, best to replant every year and then select the best plants for seed.

1 J.E. Ells, Colorado State University Cooperative Extension vegetable crop specialist and associate professor (retired), horticulture and landscape architecture. 2/96. Reviewed 10/99.

       See Colorado State University Extension Serv. PlantTalk

2.  Heirloom Vegetables, Prepared by Karen Russ, HGIC Information Specialist, and David Bradshaw, Extension Horticulture Specialist, Clemson University, http://hgic.clemson.edu

Heirloom vegetables are defined in several ways. Some consider heirlooms to be any vegetable cultivars that have been grown for a certain length of time. Other people consider vegetables to be truly heirlooms only if being passed down by a family or group has preserved them. Heirlooms are always open-pollinated, since hybrid seed can not be maintained by ordinary means. However heirloom vegetables are defined, interest is increasing in our edible heritage.

One reason to grow heirloom vegetables is simply that they are a taste of the past. Many varieties, which had been prized and maintained for
generations, have been lost in recent decades as fewer people save seed year to year. For many gardeners, saving an heirloom cultivar is a
connection to their heritage.

Many gardeners grow heirlooms that have superior flavor. Heirloom varieties that have been selected for taste and tenderness through several
generations are often tastier than cultivars that have been selected for ease of shipping, uniform appearance or ability to grow well throughout
the country.

When gardeners save the seed of the best-tasting, best-performing plants in their gardens each year for a number of years, they gradually select
their own special cultivars. Those selections will be suited to their own growing conditions and tastes. Open-pollinated seed that has been grown
and harvested for generations in a region or microclimate becomes adapted to that area’s soil, climate and pests.

Many people grow and save old cultivars because they save a lot of money by avoiding the purchase of new and expensive hybrid seed each year.
Hybrid seed will not produce similar plants when saved from year to year.Another vital reason to maintain heirlooms is to keep their genetic traits
for future use. When old varieties of food crops are not maintained, the gene pool grows smaller and smaller. This may lead to increased disease
and pest problems.

If you grow heirloom vegetables, you will almost certainly save seed. More and more companies are beginning to carry old cultivars in their seed
list, but most heirloom gardeners want to ensure their seed supply against changes in fashion. Many also feel that saving their own seed gives them
more connection to the entire process of growth and regeneration. Do not try to save seed from hybrid vegetables. It will not produce plants
the same as those from which it is collected. Saving seed can duplicate open-pollinated cultivars, if the crop is not allowed to cross with other
strains of related vegetables.

There are several ways that home gardeners can maintain their seed stock without unwanted crossing.

Some vegetables are mainly self-pollinating; their seeds will produce plants like the parent plant that produced the seeds. Beans, peas and
peanuts, lettuce, eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes are usually self-pollinating. Insects occasionally cross them, so plant them with at
least 10 feet between varieties. Beans and tomatoes are very popular as heirloom vegetables partly because they are easily maintained true to
type. Vegetables that are cross-pollinated by insects or by wind need to be isolated or raised at a considerable distance from other varieties.
This distance may need to be several hundred yards or more, depending on the crop. Onions, cucumbers, corn, pumpkins, squash, broccoli, beets,
carrots, cabbage, cauliflower, melons, radishes, spinach, Swiss chard and turnips are all insect-or wind-pollinated. In a small garden, the easiest
way to ensure purity is to grow not more than one variety of a species at a time. If your goal in raising an heirloom variety is to preserve it, you
do not want it to cross with something else.

One way to isolate cultivars is to grow them in separate screened cages, or to cover individual flowers with bags and hand-pollinate them. Another method is called time isolation. Time plantings so that different varieties are not flowering at the same time and so cannot pollinate each

Choose plants to save seed from before you harvest the rest of the crop to eat. You should choose the healthiest, most productive and most flavorful plants to save for seed. Make sure that you label them clearly for seed to avoid temptation.

Allow seeds to ripen fully before they are harvested. Mature seeds are more likely to grow well than seeds harvested too soon. Strong, healthy
plants produce healthier seeds than seed from weak, stressed plants.

Warm, dry conditions while seed matures increases their storage life. It is best to harvest your seeds and bring them inside for final drying as soon as they are fully mature and dry, especially if rains threaten Most vegetable seeds remain viable for three to five years when stored
properly. Place thoroughly dry seed in a tightly closed glass jar and keep the jar in a cool dry location. Put silica gel packets in with the seed to
help keep it dry. You can add diatomaceous earth to seed to help prevent insect damage. Store seed in the refrigerator to further increase its life expectancy. To test for germination, sprout seeds between moist paper towels; if germination is low, either discard the seeds or plant extra to
give the desirable number of plants.

Long-lived seeds include beets; all cabbage relatives such as broccoli, cauliflower, collards, and kale; cucumber; lettuce; melons; peppers;
sunflower; tomato; and turnip. If you keep them cool and dry, these seeds should maintain good viability for five years or more.

Medium-lived seeds include beans, carrot, chard, eggplant, parsley, peas, pumpkin and squash. These, properly stored, should last at least three

Short-lived seeds can only be depended on to last to the next growing season. This list includes corn, leek, onion and spinach seed.


Beans of all kinds are very popular heirloom vegetables. There are thousand of cultivars, with huge variations in taste, size, color and
markings, and climate adaptability.
Beans are usually not cross-pollinated. Separate plantings by enough distance to avoid having their vines intertwine. Allow the seed to
thoroughly mature on the vine. Pull the entire plant and place it in the shade to dry out for one to two weeks. Bring inside to finish drying if
rain threatens. Shell and store in a cool, dry area in a paper bag. Bean and cowpea seeds will keep for three or more years.

Lima and Butter Beans
‘Christmas Lima’ does well in hot, humid climates. Climbing vines produce large seeds that are white with maroon streaks and have a
wonderful flavor.
‘Snow on the Mountain’ is a beautiful, heavy-producing pole lima from the 1800s. It has deep maroon seeds with white markings.
‘Jackson Wonder Bush’ is a productive and drought-tolerant 1880s vintage heirloom from Georgia. Purple and black mottling. 66 days.
Pole, Snap And Dry Beans
‘Cherokee Trail of Tears Pole’ These heirloom pole beans were carried by Cherokee Indians on the "Trail of Tears." Purple-striped pods with
shiny black seeds.
‘Greasy Cutshort Pole’ has leaves that are shiny, giving a greasy appearance. Good eaten as snap beans.
‘Jacob’s Cattle’ is a small, pretty bean, pure-white with deep maroon
splashes. Excellent quality for baking and soups.
‘Rattlesnake Pole’ has purple-streaked 7-inch green pods that curl
like snake. The buff-colored beans with black stripes are good as
shell beans or snaps. Vines grow 10 feet tall.
‘Tongues of Fire’ is an early snap bean with beige and brown markings.
Excellent flavor.

All corn is wind-pollinated and will readily cross with other varieties.
Varieties should be widely separated, from 600 feet to over half a mile to
ensure purity. You can also save seed by bagging the ears that you want to
save for seed and hand-pollinating them, or by growing cultivars that will
be separated by blooming time. You should always grow at least 200 corn
plants in a large block when saving seed. Save seed from 50 ears of
different plants to reduce inbreeding depression. Let the seed dry
thoroughly on the plant and then dry further once husked. Seed lasts only
one year.
‘Golden Bantam’ was first introduced in 1902. This is the corn all
others were compared to.
‘Country Gentleman’ is a popular old-fashioned shoe peg variety with
irregularly spaced white kernels.
‘Stowell’s Evergreen’ was the standard, late-season white sweet corn
before ‘Silver Queen.’ Ears are 8 to 9 inches long.
‘Bloody Butcher’ is a flint corn used for flour-making or decoration.
The ears are bright red.
‘Strawberry Popcorn’ an old variety, grows 2-to 3- inch ears that are
excellent for decorations in the fall, then popping in the winter.

There are many different forms of cucumbers that are rarely seen in
stores. Cucumbers are cross-pollinated by insects. So if you want to save
cucumber seed, plant only one variety. Let the fruits hang on the vine
until ripe (skin becomes yellowish and hard). Then handle like the process
for tomatoes given below.
‘Lemon’ produces many lemon-colored and lemon-shaped fruit on
fast-growing vines.
‘White Wonder’ is an old variety that matures to an ivory white color.
The 7-inch fruit are easy see at harvest.
Cut off seed stalks when fluffy in appearance, just before all the seeds
are completely dried. Seeds will fall off the stalk and be lost if
allowed to mature on the plant.
‘Deer Tongue’ is a pre-1900 heirloom that is named for its pointed
leaves and thick mid-rib. It is heat-tolerant and slow-bolting.
‘Tennis-ball’ was a very popular lettuce in the vegetable garden at
Monticello. Tennis-ball lettuce has been grown since the late 18th
century, and it is the parent of Boston lettuce types.

Treat melons in the same way as cucumbers.
‘Jenny Lind’ grows to 1 to 2 pounds with sweet, lime-green flesh. An
heirloom from New Jersey, it was named in 1846.
‘Hearts of Gold’ is a very popular old-timer. The 3-pound melons have
thick, fine-grained flesh with spicy flavor. Flesh is salmon-orange in

Potatoes are popular heirloom vegetables. There are many unusual colors,
shapes and flavors that are seldom found at the grocery store. Heirloom
potatoes are saved from year to year as tubers, and so are very easy to
maintain true to name.
‘Russian Banana’ is a fingerling potato that is yellow-fleshed with a
pleasantly waxy texture. It varies from finger-size up to the size of
an actual banana.
‘Yellow Finns’ are medium-size, with yellow skin and yellow flesh.
‘Ruby Crescent Fingerling’ has small tubers between 2 and 6 inches
long. Ruby-red skin covers deep yellow flesh.
Okra pods should be left on the stalk until brown and well-matured. Remove
the pods and place them in the shade until thoroughly dried. It is best to
store okra seed in the pod until ready for planting.
‘Longhorn’ has long pods that are tender up to 6 or 8 inches long. It
dates from the 1880s.

Peppers, Sweet and Chili
Peppers are usually self-pollinating. Insect cross-pollination does occur
sometimes, and if it does, hot bell peppers can result, since the gene for
hotness is dominant. If grown closer than 500 feet apart, plants must be
caged or bagged to prevent spicy surprises in future years.
Peppers should be allowed to ripen until they become red. Cut the pepper
pod in half and scrape the seed onto a piece of paper. Spread out the seed
and dry thoroughly before placing in a storage container. Wash your hands
thoroughly with soapy water after harvesting the pepper seeds, since the
residues will burn eyes and lips for hours after contact.

Southern Peas or Cowpeas
Southern peas are handled in the same way as beans.
‘Calico Crowder’ is a medium-sized, heirloom, climbing crowder pea,
white with maroon splotches, good fresh or dried. 70 days.
‘Kreutzer’ is an excellent cowpea which produces quantities of
attractive beige-and-brown cowpeas with darker-brown specks.
‘Pink-Eye Purple-Hull’ has cream-colored seeds with maroon eyes in
pods which turn purple at maturity. Vigorous, heat-loving and
drought-tolerant plants with little vining.
‘Washday’ is so named because they cooked up fast on busy washdays.
This tan-yellow variety is a good yielder that makes a tasty soup. It
is a half-runner type from the 1800s.

Squash and Pumpkins
Winter and summer squash and pumpkins are all related. Crossing readily
occurs between varieties of the same species. No crossing occurs between
different species. Grow only one variety of the same species, andseparate
by mile or hand pollinate to maintain purity. The commonly grown species
are: banana, buttercup, cushaw and hubbard squash (Cucurbita maxima);
butternut squash (Cucurbita moschata); acorn, crookneck, and scallop
squash, zucchinis and most pumpkins (Cucurbita pepo); and Mexican gourd
(Cucurbita ficifolia).
When the outer covering of the squash is so hard that it cannot be dented
with your fingernail, the seeds are generally mature. Split the squash
fruit open, scoop out the seed and wash until all pulp is removed. Spread
out on newspaper to dry.
‘Cushaw Green-Striped Squash’ (C. mixta) has good-sized white fruits
with green stripes and long, curved necks. It is good for pies and
baking. Drought-tolerant and a good keeper.
Pumpkins and Related Squash (Cucurbita pepo)
‘Rouge Vif d’Etampes’ is also known as the Cinderella pumpkin. This
French heirloom pumpkin is productive and beautiful. The fruits are
flat, burnt orange to red, and deeply ridged, ranging from 1 to 2 feet
‘Connecticut Field’ is an old standard in field pumpkins. Large 20 to
35 pounds.
‘Small Sugar’ is a sweet, tasty pumpkin to 9 inches across, on short,
space-saving vines.

Tomatoes are self-pollinators and are usually not cross-pollinated. Only the potato leaf varieties must be separated. Pick fruit from desirable
plants when ripe. Cut fruit and squeeze out pulp into a container. Add a little water and let ferment two to four days at room temperature,
stirring occasionally. When seeds settle out, pour off pulp and spread seeds in a thin layer to dry thoroughly. (One source said good seeds settle to bottom and dead seeds and pulp rises to the top.)  Store in an envelope or glass jar
in a cool, dry place. Properly stored seeds will remain viable for four to 10 years.
‘Brandywine’ is the most famous heirloom tomato. This Amish heirloom originated in Chester County, PA, in 1885. The flavor and texture are
superb. Fruit quality stays high late in the season. The plant often appears disease-resistant. This "potato-leaf" variety makes a half to
a pound pinkish-red fruits.
‘Cherokee Purple’ is one of the most widely adapted of the "purple" or "black" tomatoes. The flesh inside is brick red and soft, and it has
good flavor. Pinkish-brownish-purplish delicious fruits on indeterminate vines.
‘Georgia Streak’ is a yellow and red beefsteak indeterminate heirloom from Georgia. Makes great-looking slices for summer salads.
‘Yellow Pear’ has prolific vines that produce loads of 1- to 2- inch pear-shaped fruits with good flavor.
‘Arkansas Traveler’ produces medium-sized, dark-pink tomatoes on heat-tolerant vines.
‘Mortgage Lifter’ produces pink to red, medium-sized to large fruit. Also called Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter.

‘Moon & Stars’ is another heirloom from the Amish. These 15- to 30-
pounds melons have sweet red-pink flesh. The dark green rind is
covered with bright yellow spots. The leaves of the plants are also